At TpT, we are lucky to have a community of incredibly dedicated Teacher-Authors who have a wide range of expertise, knowledge, and experience to share. This month, as part of our brand new Teacher Voices series, we had the chance to speak with Maribel from Learning in Wonderland, a TpT Teacher-Author and elementary school teacher, who is deeply passionate about teaching emerging bilingual students.

TpT Store Name: Learning in Wonderland

TpT Experience: Teacher-Author for 7 years

Teaching Experience: Thirteen years as an elementary school teacher of emerging bilingual students.

Tell us a little bit about your background.

I was born in Mexico, and lived there for the first five years of my life. My father was living in the United States at the time, working to support us and the rest of the family. This was originally intended as a short-term arrangement, however, as time passed, he came to realize that moving us here would be best for the family. Immigration was quite different back then. He was able to obtain amnesty through the Reagan administration and brought us over shortly after.

I arrived in Arizona when I was five years old and was undocumented. I was unaware of this at the time, being so young. Looking back, that is probably the reason why my early schooling had so many gaps in it. My father would move us around a lot — likely because he was worried that someone would find out about our status. By the time I reached 2nd grade, I had attended over 10 schools. Thankfully, our legal status was sorted out when I was nine and I began to live life with some normalcy.

Can you describe what your journey through school was like? 

Attending so many schools in such a short time frame was difficult and had a long-lasting effect on my life. Looking back, I see this as somewhat beneficial. I was able to experience many different systems for English Language Learners (ELLs). There were some schools where a designated ELL teacher would come pull me out of class for 30 minutes to work with me. Some had no system in place at all to support ELLs. Many of those that I attended in Arizona were under the umbrella of Bilingual Education, and in those classrooms, my teachers would speak Spanish in order to communicate with me. Since I stayed in all these schools for such a short duration of time, I made very little progress academically and struggled in acquiring English. 

Because I was constantly moving between different schools and communities, I didn’t get adequate opportunities to learn the language. This meant that I didn’t really understand English or any of the curriculum for the first few years of school. This is unfortunate, because now I know how important grades K-2 are in building a strong foundation. We moved to California when I was seven years old and I joined a 2nd grade class midway through the year. This was one of the first times I was able to stay in one place long enough to finish out the school year. I experienced the silent phase of language acquisition for quite some time. I observed and absorbed things going on around me. Bit by bit, things began to make sense. Then, in 3rd grade, it all came together. It felt amazing to understand everything going on around me. When we moved back to Arizona the following year, I was tested and found to be proficient in English. School was still a struggle for me for a very long time because I was so far behind my peers. Middle school (7th and 8th grade) was a pivotal period in my life. My teachers worked so hard to get me up to grade level and I will never forget that. 

How do these experiences play an impact on the teacher you are today?

As you can see, I had a lot of different learning experiences. Now, as a teacher of emerging bilingual students, I am so grateful to have this perspective. A lot of my students’ lives are very similar to what I went through as a child. Since I’ve been in their shoes, I’m able to communicate and connect with my students and their families in a unique way.

When I first started teaching, I told my class about how when I was in 2nd grade, I couldn’t read, write, or even speak English. Afterward, one of my students came up to me and asked, “So, when you were in 2nd grade you didn’t know anything — and now you’re a teacher. Does this mean I could be a teacher, too?” I replied, that he could be anything he wanted to be and that blew him away. That’s why I love teaching in this community. I want my students to know that anything is possible. I hope that I can serve as a role model for my kids. I want them to see that I am just like them and I went to college and started a career that I love.

How did you decide that you were going to become a teacher?

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after graduating from high school. I decided to go to community college and study history because it was a subject I enjoyed. After two years, I went to my advisor and expressed that, while I loved history, I didn’t see myself pursuing a career in that field. It was then that I decided to explore a career in teaching, which was something I had considered while in high school. I wanted to work with children who faced similar obstacles as me, because I could understand what they were going through.  

I spent two more years at community college before transferring to ASU. I was able to get an internship with a teacher I loved at a nearby school. Somewhere along the way I remember coming to the realization that teaching was for me, and I could see myself working in education for the rest of my life. Here I am 13 years later and while there are many hard days, the good moments make it all worth it.

What’s your school and your community like?

Our school is wonderful! I’ve taught at the same campus for the last 13 years and I absolutely love it. We have some families who are transient and often move in and out of district. We also have many families who have lived in the neighborhood for a long time whose children have grown up at our school.

We have a very diverse teacher community at my school. Friends have told me how there’s little diversity among their faculty. I can’t imagine what that’s like as my own experience is quite different from that. Our faculty reflects our student population. Our teachers represent many cultures and backgrounds. I realize that is something so special. Everyone here is so accepting and welcoming of every child in our community.

Why is representing your Latinx heritage so important? What are some of the ways that you bring this heritage in your classroom as part of your instruction?

We try to bring in as much as we can from our own culture. One of the things I love to do is talk about our customs. For example, one student might mention that his sister is having a quinceañera this weekend, and I’ll say, “Oh, let’s stop and talk about that and what that means.” I’ll explain to the class how it’s a celebration that’s part of Hispanic culture. Similarly, at Christmas, I’ll ask my students what traditions they’re excited about. They’ll tell me about all opening presents at midnight or about the delicious foods that their parents make, like tamales and pozole. 

In addition, I love to bring more Hispanic historical figures and leaders into my lessons or read-alouds — not just during Latinx Heritage month, but all throughout the year. It’s really important for my students to see that they are represented.

How does this have an impact on your students?

I think the biggest impact this has on my students is that it makes them feel like they matter. They know that they are part of the fabric that makes up our community — locally, throughout the country, and world.

Are there any best practices that other teachers might use to incorporate more cultural representation within their classrooms?

I lean a lot on books. They have the power to show my students how cultures are all beautifully unique. In less diverse areas of the country, many of the students may not have been exposed to different cultures. My classroom is a little different from most classrooms. I teach all Emerging Bilinguals and almost 100 percent of the time my students are of Hispanic descent. When I speak with my students about this, I tell them that there are people who don’t know much about our culture, and it’s part of our job to share our culture with them. It’s also part of our responsibility as citizens to learn about other cultures too. During read-alouds, I’ll incorporate stories from other communities to share with my students, and then we compare how those cultures are similar to ours and also how they’re different. 

Is there anything that you do to foster inquisitiveness and encourage students to actively seek to learn about other cultures?

My favorite thing to do is to model this trait. I might express curiosity regarding people and cultures in the world, which prompts my students to start sharing questions they have, too! When a teacher has that mindset of wanting to learn more, children pick up on that. They also want to be knowledgeable about the world around them.

If there was one thing you wanted other teachers to take away from your story and your experience, what would it be?

I would tell them to be patient. All children are different and as such, learn differently. Learning a new language while trying to adjust to a new way of living is hard. Just making friends is a challenge all on its own. Give children the time to adjust and grow. 

I would also tell them to celebrate when their students make any progress. For example, when that student who enrolled two weeks ago, asks simple questions in English, that’s a huge moment! The fact that they took the risk to speak in English is a cause for celebration. For me, speaking was the biggest risk when I was learning the language. I was terrified to speak because I thought everyone would make fun of me. I see a lot of teachers correcting students, instead of praising them, when their wording is slightly wrong. Being told you are wrong during these fragile moments can be crushing to a child. We want to help our students learn English correctly, but there is plenty of time for that. Praise your children first.  

Are there any additional resources or books you’d recommend other teachers?

My number one recommendation would be for teachers to search for authors from the community that they are trying to share about. Not only are they more authentic, but it’s important to give that person from that community a voice. One of my current favorite authors right now is Duncan Tonatiuh. He wrote a book called Dear Primo and my students and I relate so much to it! It’s about two boys — one who lives in Mexico and one who lives in the United States — who write letters to each other. In those letters, they talk about their communities, their language, and their customs.

Last but not least — what’s something that makes you smile?

In the classroom, something that makes me smile is seeing kids grasp the concept of things that they were struggling with for a very long time. There’s nothing more gratifying than seeing children experience success.

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About Maribel

I’m a 13-year teacher that is passionate about teaching ELL children! I love second grade, colors of the rainbow, school supplies, and making TpT resources! My shop specializes in time-saving resources, functional classroom decor, and flipbooks of all shapes and sizes. Make sure to stop by and visit me at my blog: Learning In Wonderland. I also love sharing everything teaching on my Instagram! Follow me @learninginwonderland.